Reality at Stake, VR vs. AR

The virtual reality (VR) concept is not a new fad. Companies have been making VR systems for decades.

The earliest setups were merely LCD screens positioned inside a headset with basic optics. Resolutions on early systems were ¼ VGA or 329 x 24 pixels, and both eyes looked at the same display. The headsets had poor quality, rudimentary speakers, and a cable tethered the wearer to video (VGA connector to a PC), audio (1/8 “ jack to PC), and power (wall wart). While high on the gee-whiz index then, these early players did not live up to the expectations, especially regarding head tracking and response times.

The advancement of accelerometer technology, finer resolution displays, faster and multicore processors, and wireless technology has finally made virtual reality a usable and enjoyable technology for the masses. Transparent OLED technology will make AR feasible. Several major companies have embraced VR technology as viable products for the professional and consumer markets, including Sony, HP, Valve Index, and Meta (the company that used to be Facebook).

In fact, Meta has invested nearly a billion dollars in creating and marketing the Metaverse, an alternative reality where people can meet, play, and collaborate. The company’s Quest series of VR headsets are the most popular and reasonably priced, with excellent performance, immersive experiences, good head tracking, fast response and video rendering times, and seamless software and development platforms.

Augmented reality is an older technology, with the first credited AR system developed in 1968 at Harvard, called the Sword of Damocles. It superimposed virtual information over the physical environment. Universities, companies, and governmental agencies pioneered the tech for aviation, military, and industrial purposes. The concept of AR grew hugely popular with the release of “The Terminator” in 1984. The cyborg saw pertinent data displayed and superimposed over a real-world view.

The first significant press for AR was with the innovative, ahead of its time, Google Glass, introduced in 2013. The Glass Explorer product sold for $1,500 at the time and was considered too expensive for the mainstream. It didn’t catch on for numerous reasons, and Google pulled it from the market 2 years later.

First was insufficient marketing. Google thought that the public would embrace this technology and it would sell itself. The high cost and non-users discomfort when others were wearing the unit also contributed to its failure. The public wasn’t ready for the facial recognition aspect, which allowed wearers access to personal information on anyone the wearer was looking at.

Both of these technologies are making a comeback in a big way. But which one will make it? Is there a place for both, or will one fade away? Or will they combine forces to create a truly immersive experience combining reality and virtual reality?

For pure, immersive gaming, VR is superior. It eliminates all vestiges of reality and creates an entirely virtual world. That is its significant advantage. For example, if you are playing an immersive space game, you don’t want to be able to see your couch floating in space—just the elements of the game.

The same is true for drone piloting. Here you want to see a bird’s eye view of what the drone sees. Filters and enhancements for IR, UV, and fog-piercing radar imaging systems also help navigate your mission. You do not want to see anything from the control booth. Everything should be virtual.

AR will dominate for practical work, business, and military infantry use. While enhancements to the real-world visual elements can be helpful (like edge enhancement and improved rendering in partly obscured environments like fog), it is necessary to be able to see the actual machines and instruments you are working with for many reasons. Augmented reality can also extend the range of human perceptions. A thermal camera, for example, can superimpose heart signatures over the dimly perceptible enemy soldier on a battlefield.

AR can also be more useful when fixing a complex machine like a jet engine. An augmented addition to your field of view showing where each bolt is beneficial to help guide a repair technician. The unit can enhance technician safety by coloring dangerous areas in red, possibly saving fingers and hands. Audio and video notes and instructions can remind even seasoned repair technicians of things easily forgotten if it’s been a while since they last tore down the engine.

An immersive VR system that can fade reality in and out will provide the best of all solutions, especially for military use.

Low-cost AR glasses will likely be the biggest sellers in the short term. Using your smartphone without holding and looking at it will make it easier, more fun, and even safer. But, the potential for distraction, especially when driving, is still there. Once our cars’ imaging systems can couple to the AR imaging system, real-time alerts will likely solve this distraction issue.

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